‘Dark Times, Dark Deeds, Long Shadows:  the experiences of some women in the Revolutionary Years’  

Historian Anne Twomey will address the treatment of some women during the Revolutionary years on Thursday evening, the 28th of July, at 8.00 pm at the Cork Dance Firkin Crane on the opening day of the 2022 Spirit of Mother Jones Festival. This forms part of our coverage of the Decade of Centenaries at festivals over the past few years.

Speaker, Anne Twomey, at the Festival launch with Cllr. Damien Boylan, Deputy Lord Mayor of Cork.

General background to the treatment of some women during 1916-1923 and afterwards by all sides in the conflict. 

The fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of the 1916 to 1923 period almost ignored the role of the Citizen Army (ICA), rarely referred to the Civil War’s events and largely sidelined women’s contribution to the struggle. Observers at the time may have wondered why the 1916 Proclamation addressed to the people of Ireland’ IRISHMEN and IRISHWOMEN’ seemed to apply only to the Irish men.

1916 Proclamation

Fifty years later, in the current ‘Decade of Centenaries’, the essential contribution of women to the struggle for independence has been added to the narrative of the period. Of further significance is the emergence from the silence and shadows of the war years of increasing evidence of the cruel and inhumane treatment of some women by all sides during the revolutionary years and in the new Irish Free State both during and long after the end of the Irish Civil War of 1922/23.

Source: Cuimhneachán 1916-1966 Commemoration Booklet.


It can be argued that evidence of the participation of women was always to be found if one knew where to look and asked the right questions. However, as Sinead McCoole in “No Ordinary Women” discovered, many quiet, unassuming Aunt Bridies (Bridie Halpin) around the country existed. Their long-lost collections of personal materials in attics were found and revealed their vital and valuable contributions to the fight for Independence.

Additionally, the important work of Margaret Ward, Louise Ryan and Linda Connolly and many other academics and writers have highlighted and challenged the unacknowledged gender-based violence against women which occurred across the wars. 

For every high-profile Countess Markieviez, Kathleen Clarke or Mary MacSwiney, there were also hundreds of nameless women involved. They sacrificed their health and took huge personal risks to ensure the functioning and integrity of the secret revolutionary infrastructure of the Irish Republican Army, challenging the British army and demanding a real democratic republic.  Kathleen Clarke, widow of Tom Clarke, one of the 1916 Proclamation seven signatures, while in Holloway Jail in London in 1918, detailed her inhumane treatment in the autobiography “Revolutionary Woman”.  

Mrs. Clarke was born into the Daly family in Limerick city. Her brother Ned was executed after 1916, two sisters, Nora and Laura, were in the GPO, and the family was regularly harassed by British forces.

During a raid in October 1920, her two sisters, Una and Carrie, were physically attacked by the British raiding party. Una was dragged into the street where her hair was cropped, and her hand was slashed with a razor. The terror, shock and subsequent trauma of brutal hair cropping inflicted on many women by the male protagonists on all sides left an insidious lifetime mark on women treated in such a degrading and dehumanising manner.

Yet later, during the Civil War, following another disruptive Free State army raid on her home in 1922, Kathleen sadly comments. 

“Running through my mind was all I has suffered at the hands of the British, and now my own people were causing me more suffering, and it hurt more because they were my own” 

Publications such as “Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times” detailed the arrest and imprisonment by British forces of seventeen-year-old Mary Bowles from Clogheen on the northside of Cork City in January 1921. Various reports suggest she was very badly treated. Regular raids took place by British forces, and their harsh treatment meted out to women in isolated farmhouses and homes all across the country, which were left wrecked or burned by the Black and Tans, went largely unreported at the time.

Kathleen Keyes McDonnell described a military raid on her family mill and home at
Castlelack near Bandon.

“One morning towards the end of January 1920, police and military forced an entry by the back door before 7 a.m. One soldier put a bayonet to my forehead ordering me to get out of bed; another seized my arm and shook me roughly”

Tom Barry’s memory of the Crowley family in Kilbrittain, (especially Mrs. Crowley “sitting on a stool in the yard, gazing thoughtfully at the ruins of her blown up and burnt out house” with members of her family dead or in prison), following a visit by the infamous British Essex Regiment, leaves no one in any doubt as to the brutal actions of the military during the War of Independence.

The kidnap by the IRA of Mary Rawson, known as Mrs. Lindsay, following her betrayal of the planned Dripsey Ambush, resulted in the execution of five IRA men and the death from wounds of a sixth in February 1921. This action clearly declared that women were not immune to execution. This elderly woman’s long period of detention as a hostage and her eventual execution in the middle of March in Rylane, Co Cork was extensively documented by local historian Tim Sheehan in his book ‘Lady Hostage’ published in 1990. Around the same time, 45-year-old Bridget Noble (Neill) was executed as a spy by the IRA at Ardgroom in West Cork. In ‘A Hard Local War’, William Sheehan references Nellie Carey’s and Essie Sheehan’s deaths for ‘going out’ with British soldiers and ex-soldiers.

In the course of her paper to the Irish Civil War National Conference in Cork in June 2022, Dr. Mary McAuliffe spoke of the violence inflicted on Bridget Carolan in Longford, Margaret’ Ciss” Doherty in Donegal, the Walsh sisters in Kerry and Margaret Doherty of Co Mayo by the National Army during 1922 and 1923. These were just a few of those women who suffered. The attack on Eileen Biggs in Dromineer, Co Tipperary, in June 1922 by anti-Treaty IRA men, who escaped justice, was one of the violent events reported in the media.

Diarmaid Ferriter’s recent publication on the Irish Civil War ‘Between Two Hells’, provides an account of some of the suffering of women during the period. He tells of Cork Cumann na mBan members Ellen Carroll who, as a result of her wartime activities, contracted TB in 1924 and young Johanna Cleary and Mary Carey who both died in 1924 as a result of an earlier Civil War hunger strike in Kilmainham Gaol.

He refers to the efforts of their families and Cork activist Nora O’Brien (Martin), who had been arrested and imprisoned several times after 1916, to submit applications for small pension gratuities, which often failed due to mean-spirited pension adjudicators. What is striking about this is the indifference and bureaucratic cruelty of the State pension adjudication system, usually manned by former male comrades. They regularly and coldly refused to award even paltry payments to many women who had endured deprivations, trauma and bad health arising directly from their wartime activities.

Women could only apply for the lower levels of pension payments, a grade D or E pension, the highest levels (A, B and C) were reserved for active men only. Hundreds of women across the country were refused pensions based on narrow criteria as to what constituted ‘active service’. This unfair treatment continued for many decades as the women aged and needed assistance.

Author Liz Gillis raises a fundamental point in her publication ‘Women of the Irish Revolution’ when she comments:

“Whereas the men were fighting for the Republic, the women while also fighting for that ideal, were additionally fighting for real change. They asked what exactly this Republic would mean for ordinary people, for the poorer parts of society”  

In reality, many of the women revolutionaries were fighting for real social change, and one is forced to question the real motives and ideals of the now comfortable male leaders of the new Irish State. Did they really desire any real social change in light of their fierce hostility to many women activists who had fought alongside them?

Sinēad McCoole provides a list of some eighty-three women imprisoned after the 1916 Rising; at least twenty were from the socialist Irish Citizen Army, led by James Connolly, who were a very socially aware group. Ann Matthews lists twenty-eight members of the female auxiliary of the ICA “in action” in 1916 in her publication The Irish Citizen Army. In all, over 70 women were coming and going to the General Post Office (GPO) at some point during Easter Week, while at least 270 women were directly involved around Dublin in the Rising.

No Ordinary Women also contains a further prisoner list of women held in Kilmainham Gaol, Mountjoy Jail and the North Dublin Union during and after the Civil War. The extensive records list five hundred and fifty names of Republican women interned and imprisoned during this period, many of whom were kept in terrible conditions. Many of the names and addresses of those women make for stark reading in that they remain largely unknown, although women had become increasingly visible in the Civil War. Almost forty of the incarcerated women on that list were from Cork; who were they? Do we know their life stories?

Some spent time on hunger strikes during this period and endured beatings and punishment. Several died soon afterwards due to illness and medical conditions arising at very young ages. Later following their release back into their families and communities, these traumatised women were often dismissed and described as simply “suffering from their nerves’.

The use of much of this violence was not accidental or down to rogue individuals. It appeared to form part of a systematic State policy intended to smash the resistance of the women, yet no one has been held accountable for the harsh treatment they endured while in custody. Few efforts were made to bring the elements of either the National Army or the Anti-Treaty forces responsible for the violence against women to justice. The policy of impunity permitting freedom from sanction enjoyed by those responsible created a de facto official immunity for male participants on all sides. In the absence of a truth and reconciliation commission, the cruel treatment of some women remains a stain on the birth of the State.

Wars are cruel and savage affairs where the normal rules of interaction, consideration, dignity and respect among some participants are lost. Passionate political views on both sides of the Civil War divide, when transformed into violent action, unleashed the dogs of war. This sundered the once solidly united Cumann na mBan and resulted in former friends and comrades becoming bitter enemies in the early years of the new State. The war cast a long shadow.

As a result, Ireland developed into a mean-spirited place for many women in the subsequent decades as the ruling political and exclusively male establishment, closely aligned with members of the Catholic Church hierarchy, ignored and actively discriminated against women in employment, health and education.

Tens of thousands of women who broke the Church’s moral teaching were incarcerated in the Magdalen Laundries and in the Mother and Baby Homes. Thousands more emigrated quietly due to economic necessity and local social stigma, to Britain and the USA, and continued to do so until progressive women’s voices began to rise again in the 60s and 70s.

Many of those who stayed on in the new Ireland of the 1920s such as Kathleen Lynn, Helena Molony, Rosie Hackett, Charlotte Despard, Madeleine Ffrench-Mullen, Elizabeth O’Farrell, Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, Delia Larkin, Leslie Price, Winifred Carney (the last woman to leave the burning GPO!) and many others were in the forefront of the subsequent efforts over the decades to bring about a more equal, fairer and compassionate society. 

If the powerful records of University College Cork’s “Cork Fatality Index”, which covers some of the period of the Decade of Centenaries, are examined, one cannot but be shocked at the general level of violence in the Cork area. Of the eight hundred and twenty-seven who died in Cork from 1919 to 1923, twenty-five were women, including eleven who were killed during the Civil War. 

Reading the accounts of their deaths, it is clear that the great majority were innocent victims of the fighting and general mayhem happening around them in Cork. The names of Albina Murphy, aged 34, a member of the Irish Union of Distributive Workers, Madge Daly aged 24, Mollie Egan aged 24 shot in the neck; Kate Crowley; Lillie Gallagher, aged 8, killed by a bomb, May Hall, nineteen-year-old Josephine Scannell killed by a stray bullet while sewing and sitting by her window on Frenches Quay are probably unknown to most people.

The girls and women and others who died may be remembered only by their families today, yet they were the horrific casualties of the violent birth of our country and should not be forgotten. Their deaths should continue to remind everyone of the enormous price paid by many ordinary people during war.

To quote Cork woman Mary Elmes, speaking about World War Two on the cost of warfare:

“War is a terrible thing, which is never won. It’s always lost. Everybody loses.” 

Sources and Reading.

Diarmuid Ferriter, Between Two Hells, The Irish Civil War (Profile Books 2022)
Kathleen Clarke, Revolutionary Woman 1878-1972, An Autobiography (The
O’Brien Press Ltd 1991) Cuimhneachán 1916-1966 Commemoration Booklet.
Tim Sheehan, Lady Hostage Mrs. Lindsay (Cork 1990)
Sinēad McCoole, No Ordinary Women (The O’Brien Press Ltd 2015)
Liz Gillis, Women Of The Irish Revolution (The Mercier Press 2014)
Shandon Area History Group, Ordinary Women In Extraordinary Times (2019)
Louise Ryan, Drunken Tans: Representations of Sex and Violence in the Anglo-
Irish War (1919-21). Feminist Review 2000. 
Dr Mary McAuliffe, ‘Violence and indiscipline? The treatment of ‘die-hard’ anti-
treaty women by the National Army 1922-23. Irish Civil War National
Conference.
Ann Matthews, ‘The Irish Citizen Army’ (The Mercier Press 2014)
Kathleen Keyes McDonnell, ‘There is a Bridge at Bandon’ (The Mercier Press
1972)
Tom Barry, ‘Guerrilla Days in Ireland’ (The Irish Press 1949)
William Sheehan, ‘A Hard Local War’ (The History Press 2011)
Paddy Butler, ‘The extraordinary story of Mary Elmes, the Irish Oscar Schindler’
(Open Press 2017) Linda Connolly, Understanding violence against women in the Irish Revolution –
a global context. RTE.
Cork Fatality Index, University College Cork.